My parents loved Adlai Stevenson. They rarely talked politics but Adlai was special, a man they looked up to and trusted. They sat in front of our small black and white television watching the 1952 election returns when Stevenson lost the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower. They had less enthusiasm when John Kennedy succeeded Ike in 1960, though my mother adored Jackie’s fabulous sense of style. I wore a pink pillbox hat to a cousin’s wedding when I was 17, pretending to be as chic as Mrs. Kennedy.
The Kennedys symbolized a young, energetic America ready to take on social issues, and I began to pay attention. JFK implored us to do something for our country. Peace Corps volunteers were sent abroad. Black ministers urged followers to fight segregation and poverty. Nightly news reports of the Black Panthers, student protests at Berkeley and marches in Washington increasingly drew me in.
I was drawn to Bobby Kennedy because of his compassion for the poor and underrepresented. He listened carefully to the impoverished children of Appalachia, marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama and walked in the Central Valley fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant workers.
Edward Kennedy was larger than life for me. His commanding physical presence – the booming voice in anger at the Senate hearings to confirm Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court. The joy he shouted from the podium to endorse Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic Convention. And the kind, soft words he bestowed on family members at funerals for military personnel who died in combat.
The end of the Kennedy era as I remembered it arrived this week with Ted Kennedy’s passing......